Announcement to reality

NEW BUSES FOR BMTC: In the last two to three years, performance of the BMTC has slipped as its fleet size and revenue have both decreased.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah proposed in his 2017–18 budget speech an additional 3,000 buses for the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC). He said: “It is proposed to substantially increase the number of buses in BMTC to reduce traffic congestion and to provide reliable transport services in Bengaluru. 3000 new buses will be inducted during the current year.”

If done right, each bus on Bengaluru’s roads could remove tens and hundreds of private vehicles off the road. Given the scale of Bengaluru’s mobility and traffic issues, lots of big steps like this are needed. Let's see what it would take to make this dream a reality.

The BMTC is one of the better performing urban transport corporation in India. But in the last 2-3 years, its performance has slipped as its fleet size and revenue have both decreased. During 2016–17, BMTC has added 10 buses and scrapped 240, resulting in a net loss of 230 buses. In the last two years, it has scrapped 373 buses more than it added.

This has also led revenue to contract by about 5% in each of the last two years. The BMTC is reportedly ready to scrap another 1,000 buses based on its standard criteria (older than 10 years and 8.5 lakh km). It is clear that BMTC urgently needs an infusion of new buses to cater to the ever-growing population of Bengaluru.

Currently, BMTC has a fleet of over 6,100 buses. Every day, the buses drive 11.50 lakh km, serving five million customers, and each bus does an average of 206 kms/day. The buses cater to about 30% of all commuter transport requirements of Bengaluru. Its website shows that it made an operational loss of about Rs 195 crore in 2015-16.

In a 2015 report, think tank C-STEP evaluated different scenarios involving BMTC and Namma Metro. Continuing to provide the same 30% level of all transport needs, it estimated that BMTC needs 3,000 more buses by 2021. This was based on a projected population of 132 lakh in 2021. So, the promise of adding 3,000 new buses does not seem to be too outlandish.

The BMTC currently has nearly 34,500 employees, which is 5.6 employees per bus. A net addition of 2000 buses (after scrapping 1,000 buses) would require hiring more than 11,000 employees: mostly drivers, conductors, mechanics and supervisors. If we assume that the employees to bus ratio improves dramatically to 5.0 due to advantages of scale, BMTC would still need to recruit over 6,000 employees. Hiring, training and housing that many new employees is a mammoth task needing serious concerted action.

As per the latest available data, BMTC owed Rs 669 crore in 2013-14. The 3,000 new buses may cost anywhere from Rs 1,200 crore to Rs 3,000 crore, depending on the mix of buses they choose to buy. The BMTC needs strong support from the state government to manage such large loans. Its interest payments might more than double if it goes ahead with these loans. In his budget speech, the CM said “State Government will provide support to BMTC for purchase of buses by undertaking to bear the repayment burden on the loans availed by it.”

A quick look at the allocations for BMTC from the Karnataka budget does not show any major change in support for BMTC. In 2016-17, the state government had provided a grant of Rs 200 crore towards BMTC, and another Rs 51 crore towards interest payments. In the 2017-18 budget, the provisions are about the same at Rs 207 crore and Rs 87 crore.

Arguably, Bengaluru needs some innovative ideas to fix its traffic problems. We need to try every possible solution to get people off their cars and into public transport. If 3,000 buses truly get added, it would be a travesty to have them come on Bengaluru’s roads without many changes in BMTC’s policies and operations.

Ideas for the future

A majority of BMTC bus routes still go through the three main bus stands of KBS, K R Market and Shivajinagar. It is time to make better use of the many bus stands recently built around the city. In the age of GPS, smart phones and big data, we can gather data from actual commuters to identify routes that have greater density of commuters. We need to move to a dynamic scheduling system where buses are routed to places where they are needed.

Metro will surely eat into some of BMTC revenue, but it also provides an opportunity. The BMTC should run small feeder buses to Metro stations to provide connectivity from nearby areas. This will truly bring in interoperability and make it possible for BMTC to replace the autorickshaw as the last mile solution. The BMTC’s fleet expansion needs to be coordinated well with the ‘Station Accessibility Plans’ of Namma Metro.

Bengaluru could become the first city in India to sell a combined Transit Pass for all its public transport solutions. A quick win would be if commuters paying Rs 140 for a day pass on premium buses getting access to the Metro as well. Beyond this, a smart mobility card solution proposed by the Union Ministry of Urban Development can be taken up by the BMTC and the Metro.

In the long-run, BMTC could reduce staff costs (up to 30% of the total cost) by eliminating the bus conductor, using only a smart card reader operated by the driver, starting with selected routes during peak hours. This could also simplify the massive hiring challenge that would accompany the thousands of new buses.

In all, Siddaramaiah’s announcement of adding 3,000 new buses is a lofty orienting goal, but it has to do with a lot more than just buses, if realistic. This government has one year in its current term to prove its sincerity and commitment to the public on transforming city transport in Bengaluru.

(The writer is associated with the Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru)

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